Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Still wrong after all these years

Walter Williams
A physicist, biologist, and economist are shipwrecked on an island with no food except canned goods. They have no can opener. They soberly consider their dilemma. Each professor presents a plan to the others.
The physicist has identified some coral reef. He proposes that at low tide he carefully wade out to the reef, break off some coral, attach it to a stone and use that tool to open the cans. The biologist disagrees. She states that because this island is known for inedible and highly acidic snails they should dig for those snails and express their acid to cut through the can lids.
The two scholars look expectantly at the economist. He says "Let's assume we have a can opener".
Walter Williams is an economist.  Much like the economist in the story, he is prone to making useless assumptions. Williams was the subject of a recent WSJ column
As a right wing libertarian Williams has a blind spot to free market inefficiencies and immoralities. He assumes morality. Williams thinks the majority of issues which impact black people are either their own fault or caused by the government.

Today just 17% of construction workers are unionized, but Democratic politicians, in deference to the AFL-CIO, have kept Davis-Bacon in place to protect them. Because most black construction workers aren't union members, however, the law has the effect of freezing them out of jobs. It also serves to significantly increase the costs of government projects, since there are fewer contractors to bid on them than there would be without Davis-Bacon.

Analysis of this issue launched Mr. Williams' career as a public intellectual, and in 1982 he published his first book, "The State Against Blacks," arguing that laws regulating economic activity are far larger impediments to black progress than racial bigotry and discrimination. Nearly 30 years later, he stands by that premise.

"Racial discrimination is not the problem of black people that it used to be" in his youth, says Mr. Williams. "Today I doubt you could find any significant problem that blacks face that is caused by racial discrimination. The 70% illegitimacy rate is a devastating problem, but it doesn't have a damn thing to do with racism. The fact that in some areas black people are huddled in their homes at night, sometimes serving meals on the floor so they don't get hit by a stray bullet—that's not because the Klan is riding through the neighborhood."


Williams glosses over a few things.


The bloodiest war in this nation's history was fought because a group of slave owners were worried that the Federal government might interfere in the private marketplace and limit or end slavery. Afterwards the partisans and descendants of the losing side set up a formalized system of apartheid while those of the winning side, who generally eschewed most of the Southern Jim Crow system, still practiced what amounted to informal segregation. Each system also featured semi-regular outbursts of public or private violence should any Black person ignore certain barriers.
These systems finally broke down post-WW2 for a variety of reasons, free market capitalism not being the most prominent. In fact the general arc of the US political economy from 1910-1970 was away from free market capitalism. The most effective tool used to dismantle these structures was government action to limit the choices of private individuals and companies.
This is anathema to libertarians. Fundamentalist free market libertarians don't accept the government’s right to interfere in the private marketplace. They believe that the market will work it all out and if it doesn't why then it's up to the individual to shop, work or move somewhere else. So food safety laws, anti-discrimination laws, environmental protections, workplace safety regulations, child labor laws, medical licensing, unions, fair housing laws, affirmative action, taxes etc are all bad things under this point of view - very bad things indeed.
Williams ignores current studies which show that all else equal, race is still a major factor in who gets hired, who gets promoted, who even has the opportunity to interview in the first place (Helpful hint -try not to have a “black sounding” name on your resume.)
Black people don't get the same benefit (income) from education. 
Private decisions in aggregate can have a negative effect on a black person's ability to buy a home of his/her choosing. This also impacts future inherited wealth. (subject of a future post)
So is government always the solution? Are Black people perpetual victims? Does this mean that there aren't some Black people who need to get their behind in gear and get in the game?

OF COURSE NOT! No intelligent person argues that.
What's past is past and can't be changed. But the past has an impact on the present. Additionally some bad things are still occurring today.
Pretending that most problems arise from government intervention in the marketplace is just silly. It fits what I consider a loony libertarian view of the world but it doesn't match reality. It's a straw man which Williams has constructed in order to avoid confronting the limits of his ideology. Unsurprisingly he's no fan of Title II of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, viewing it as unconstitutional and unnecessary.
  
So what's your take? Do you think the challenges black people face were primarily created or aggravated by government actions?  Does the federal government (or any arm of government) have the constitutional right to ban private discrimination?  Did the Great Society destroy the Black family? Is racism a thing of the past?
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